I remembered the blues song, “Going to Kansas City,” from a Muddy Waters show at our college union. When Muddy got to the mike, the first thing he did was ask everybody to get rid of the folding chairs set out in front of the stage, and stand up and dance. Which we all did.
So I had that rollicking, rolling blues song in mind when our bureau chiefs were going to Kansas City to hire reporters for Missouri and Kansas. And I wanted to go along.
Arriving at the Kansas City International Airport, I found two small carousels set out on the main floor between gates and wondered if I was in the right place. I walked into the Southwest office to check with a young white man with a short-sleeved white shirt, greasy, black hair and glasses.
“This is probably a dumb question, but is this where we pick up our bags.”
He looked at me stone-faced and said, “Yes, sir.”
I knew it was a dumb question.
While I waited, I asked one of the maintenance crew, a young black man dressed in a tan shirt holding a cleaning bucket, “I know there are two airports around here – is this the big one.”
He chuckled in a mellow way and said, “Yeah it is.”
He was smiling a bit because he knew exactly what I was getting at, that I was in genuine doubt whether this could be the main airport of a big American city.
But in the downtown, nestled inside a 90-degree bend in the Missouri River, you can see the vibrant industrial and agricultural past of the city via the massive edifices that dot the area with a power in structure and masonry that is long gone.
And, after a long period of decrepitude, the buildings are now seeing new life. The Mercantile Exchange, a beautiful old building across from the city library, is now filled with condos. So is the old federal courthouse up a hill a couple blocks away. And there are a few coffee shops, bars and restaurants sprinkled around the area.
Awake very early on the first morning, I took a long walk, scoping out the downtown and the federal and state courthouses. The new federal court is a huge, double-winged tower with an enormous lobby, a small historical exhibition and well-appointed courtrooms completed in 1998.
The clerk’s office is expansive, I would say huge, and two clerks sitting at a window had nobody to attend to – eager to help a wandering journalist with some questions.
Up a few floors, a couple marshals were sitting at a desk watching over the courtrooms and I fell into conversation with them. I told them a story about looking out my hotel window that morning and thinking an atom bomb had struck because there was no one on the street below.
Knowing I was from Los Angeles, the older marshal came right back with a story about an article he had read just the other day in the Kansas City Star, about LA having the worst traffic in the nation – the worst.
So we were even.
The federal courthouse is at the north end of a two-block esplanade with a walkway, grass and a few small trees. At the south end, like the other end of a barbell, is City Hall, built in the same 1930s Art Deco style as the City Hall in Los Angeles. On the same line in the next block is the Jackson County courthouse.
The sheriffs at the state courthouse are a rougher and grimmer bunch than the blue-blazer wearing U.S. marshals. The lobby is small, and a line stretches out of the tax assessor’s office where people are lined up to pay their tax bills.
Throughout Kansas City the men in security jobs or in suits are mostly white, and those in service jobs or paying fines and taxes at the courthouse are mostly black. The rich panoply of races that jam the freeways and walk the streets of Los Angeles is non-existent here. This is an old familiar version of America.
The records room in the Jackson County courthouse is a cramped affair, with a very small space for the public and two screens where people can sit down and try to figure out a docket system that, as one clerk put it, has been there “forever.” The three clerks were busy.
On this first impression, I was struck by the architectural beauty, ample space and luxurious staff level of the new federal courthouse compared with the unrenovated, beat-up interiors, tight quarters, understaffed offices and large number of people using the 80-year-old state courthouse.
The pair of courts put a bit of color into my understanding of the political winds sweeping the nation, where Republican governors and state legislatures are stripping away the financial underpinning of their governments while Congress tries to do the same for the other end of the esplanade.
In my three days there, the people of Kansas City were uniformly friendly, the beer and bars were good, the restaurants fair enough – except the barbecue ribs were dripping in sugar syrup – and business and people seemed to be returning to the downtown.
But still, after we’d hired two capable reporters and I was on my way out, it all made me wonder whether Muddy Waters was singing about a different Kansas City.